Learn how brain-boosting activities can help stop the effects of aging, prevent memory loss and protect against mental decline in Your Best Brain Ever: A Complete Guide & Workout (National Geographic Society, 2014) by Michael S. Sweeney and Cynthia R. Green. In this excerpt, from "Sustain Your Brain,” Sweeney lays out some easy-to-follow brain health tips.
Your brain’s health may be the most powerful indicator of how long you will live. It is crucial to know whether that life will be rich and satisfying from youth well into old age, or something substantially less rewarding, and for less time.
A car driven wisely, fueled with high-quality gasoline, given regular oil changes, and repaired with new parts as old ones wear out is likely to last longer than one that’s abused or neglected. Likewise, the easiest way to have a healthy brain in middle age and beyond is to start with one as a youth and to follow good physical and mental habits. Exercise it. Feed it. Challenge it. Then enjoy the rewards.
But what of the person who comes late to repairs, like the owner of a car that rusts for years on blocks or runs too long on dirty oil? The car owner can always swap out the engine. You, on the other hand, have only one brain, basically composed of the same neurons you were born with, plus a few added to some narrowly specific areas. Once they’ve begun to deteriorate, can they be saved—or even made stronger?
Brain researcher Marian Diamond is certain they can.
In the 1960s, Diamond compared two groups of lab rats. The first group was confined to the equivalent of a gray isolation cell in a maximum-security prison. They ate simple rations to keep them alive from day to day, but their brains received little stimulation. No rat games, no rat puzzles, no rat get-togethers to break the boredom. She enrolled the second group in a version of rat school, complete with recess. They had toys and balls for play, challenging mazes to explore, exercise equipment to get blood pumping to their muscles and their neurons, and best of all, other rats to share their experiences. When she pitted the two in timed contests in which they ran the same mazes, the rats that had lived in the mentally and physically invigorating environment performed much better.
New Kind of Fitness Regimen
Learning can strengthen your brain at any age.
Diamond then did what she could not do to humans in a similar experiment. She put both winners and losers under the knife to examine their brains. (Life’s not fair, especially for rodents.) Rats that had enjoyed the richer learning environment and had won the maze races exhibited markedly different brains from those in the control group. Their cerebral cortices—the outer, wrinkled shells that are home to neural pathways that make sense of the world—were thicker than those of the unstimulated rats. The enriched-brain rats had more neural connections, a sign of greater mental activity. And they had more blood vessels to carry vital oxygen to keep those connections firing at peak efficiency. Diamond had gathered concrete evidence that what goes on in the mind manifests itself in the physical state of the brain. Learning strengthens the organ of the brain just as exercise strengthens muscles in the legs, arms, and abdomen.
As revealing as Diamond’s research was, it had a twist: She didn’t experiment on young rats. She chose to work with rats in middle age and older, equal to ages between 60 and 90 in humans. Old rats had brains they could reshape in response to new experiences, a condition known as plasticity.
Experience Is Everything
That revelation changed widespread beliefs about the plasticity of older brains. Studies with young rats, cats, and other mammals had suggested that the brain opened a crucial window for learning during youth, and then closed it. For instance, in a series of famous experiments in the 1960s, neurobiologists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel took a group of kittens and sewed one of each pair of eyes shut at birth but left the other untouched. At six months, they opened the closed eye. Although the eye was physically sound, the kitten never learned to see through it.
The experiment demonstrated that the kitten’s brain had been wired to expect, and process, visual information at a crucial time in development. When that time passed, those abilities were gone forever. Scientists call this type of brain development “experience-expectant,” meaning the brain awaits the stimulus of a particular experience, such as sight or sound, to develop the means to process that information.
No Age Limits
But there’s a second category of brain-developing experiences. These are called “experience-dependent.” They prompt brain growth in response not to stimuli common to the species, such as light and sound, but rather to the individual’s unique environment. A child raised in the Amazon jungle learns a lot about plants and animals of the rain forest. A child growing up in the suburbs figures out how to play on the jungle gym and swings, or to swim in a pool or kick a soccer ball.
This second type of brain development can occur at any time. Some types of learning, such as mastery of a second language, are easier before the age of puberty, but on the other hand, vocabulary building occurs throughout life. In general, there is no single, crucial time window for this kind of learning. Your brain can learn experience-dependent knowledge at any time.
10 Simple Brain Health Tips
What’s good for your body and your social life is good for your brain, too. Here’s all you need to know in just 10 steps:
Step 1: Get regular exercise.
Step 2: Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.
Step 3: Stay on top of your health and use medications wisely.
Step 4: Get a good night’s sleep, avoid risky behaviors, and don’t stress!
Step 5: Play games against the clock to stay sharp and focused.
Step 6: Use simple memory strategies to enhance your daily recall.
Step 7: Keep your mind engaged through new challenges. Find little ways to “change up” your brain’s routine.
Step 8: Be social—it offers great challenge for everyday thinking skills.
Step 9: Work or volunteer to stay intellectually challenged and socially engaged. Both activities may offer protection from memory loss over time.
Step 10: Think positively! Self-perception can affect our performance. Practice the power of positive thinking and believe in your memory.
This article is excerpted with permission from Your Best Brain Ever: A Complete Guide & Workout (c)2014 by Michael S. Sweeney, National Geographic Society. It may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.